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Union Survival Guide for Media Pros

How to Adapt in an Uncertain Future


With traditional forms of media in flux, members of media-related unions are feeling the squeeze. They face a triple threat from newly-transformed workplaces, potential mergers that would put more power in the hands of fewer owners and the prospect that generations-old media powerhouses could fail and take union jobs down with them. Surviving the changes in media requires action to protect workers' rights while working closely with management on the difficult choices they must make.

Seize Opportunities in Changing Newsrooms

Unions are seeing media owners take advantage of new technology to consolidate job functions and sometimes lay off workers. One trend among television stations is to buy smaller, cheaper gear to shoot news stories so the traditional jobs of reporters and camera operators can be merged into "one-man-band" or "video journalist" positions. That can create job cuts among both reporters and camera operators who are often union members.

At WUSA in Washington, DC, this change was part of a new union agreement. One reported side effect is that the station's "multimedia journalists" will be doing more work for a smaller paycheck. The Washington Post reports these people could be paid up to 50% less than previous reporters.

That usually means younger, less-experienced people will do the work. For managers, cutting people with the highest salaries may be tempting, but unions should fight to keep some experienced mentors on the job to train newly-hired staff. Unions can take this opportunity to develop a new relationship with management to focus on product quality instead of antiquated job functions.

Take the Spotlight with Proposed Media Mergers

While media companies have been merging for years, the proposed consolidation of cable TV giant Comcast and NBC Universal has brought urgent concern to the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians of the Communication Workers of America (NABET-CWA) union.

The worry for the union is not just a change in the bosses at contract negotiation time. In testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, CWA President Larry Cohen said the deal (.PDF) could result in "the loss of good jobs, the erosion of employee rights and undermine living standards in the communications and media industries."

Cohen predicts a merger would lead to massive cost-cutting. Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts denies the goal is to cut jobs, though, according to Broadcasting & Cable.

Unions have been losing power for generations. In this case, they have many other groups, such as the Parents Television Council and Consumer Reports, joining them in raising concerns.

This is time for the unions to take the spotlight to regain their national importance. By joining with other groups that share similar views, unions can boost their exposure when a mega-merger is in the works.

Consider Concessions to Secure Jobs

Other union members are being forced to consider taking contract concessions in order to ensure the survival of their employers. After the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the nation's largest newspapers, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, its unions decided to take cuts.

Chicago Business reports the buyer would only agree to purchase the struggling newspaper's parent company if union workers continued to take a 15% pay reduction and make other sacrifices. The only alternative, said the newspaper's CEO, was the chance of liquidation. This would've cost 1,800 people their jobs.

In the past, unions might strike to call the bluffs of media bosses trying to take away pay or benefits. Today, that strategy is a game of Russian roulette, especially among newspapers facing huge financial losses.

Unions at The Boston Globe took cuts to keep the newspaper from folding. At The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, union workers agreed to concessions, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper still went under. Now is the time for unions to be careful in making demands and to consider alternatives that would've been unthinkable even just 10 years ago.

Build a Trusting Relationship with Management That Works Both Ways

Communication and compromise between management and unions are vital in a drastically different media landscape. Hard bargaining over labor contracts may mortally wound media companies, taking away jobs of both union workers and managers.

Union workers should know that their questions about how traditional jobs in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV will morph over time are shared by management. Job cuts are often necessary among both union and non-union employees because media companies can face extinction if they don't radically change their operations.

Corporate managers who inherit companies with unions need to see that these aren't faceless groups making impossible demands. Unions are made of people, many of whom have given decades of service to their company, while paying union dues to ensure they'll get wages to buy homes, raise families and retire comfortably.

In these uncertain times, unions and management can't be enemies. Survival depends on working together to reach success in a new media marketplace.

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